Lectionary Commentaries for December 25, 2014
Christmas Day (III)
Commentary on John 1:1-14
Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10
Kristin J. Wendland
This passage is joyfully noisy.
First, the messenger announces and speaks. Then, sentinels lift up their voices in a song of joy. Finally, Jerusalem herself joins in the cacophonous acclamation of God’s deeds. The good news of what God has done is too good to be quietly noted. One must give voice in witness and praise such that even the ends of the earth shall see God’s acts of salvation.
On Christmas morning the focus of one’s preaching rightly focuses on the incarnation, on God Almighty taking on flesh and blood to dwell among humanity. This reading from Isaiah, written long before the advent of the Christ child, bears witness of God as savior and reminds us that while the incarnation is most certainly something new, God as savior is not new but a part of who God is — something that had already been praised for centuries.
The passage, as befits a celebration of incarnation, emphasizes the bodily nature of witness and praise. The feet of the messenger are beautiful (vs. 7). Sentinels lift up their voices (vs. 8). The LORD bears an arm before the eyes of the nations (vs. 10). Much of this language is metaphoric and metonymic. The body imagery reminds us that neither the work of God nor the praise humans render are tasks of the mind but rather involve our whole beings, even our bodies.
The voice of the messenger
The messenger announces a number of things: peace, good news, salvation, and that Zion’s God reigns (vs. 7). It is a reversal of things that had previously been spoken to Zion. The verses just prior to this pericope recount two events from Zion’s history: the Exile (vs. 3) and the Exodus (vs. 4). Just as God had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, so God is now leading the exiles home. Instead of war — experienced at the hand of both Assyria and Babylon — they now will have peace. Their God reigns.
Statements proclaiming the reign of the LORD occur throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah. These statements are often praises that claim God as ruler over all nations (cf Psalms 47 and 97-99) or as one who established the orders of creation (Psalm 93). In the ancient Near Eastern context, wars were thought to be an earthly reflection of gods fighting in the heavens. The statement that Zion’s God reigns signifies both the power of the LORD and a rejection of the power of other kings or gods.
The Old Testament also attests to a tense relationship between the LORD as king and the human king reigning on the throne of Israel. The people’s request for a king in 1 Samuel 8 is interpreted as a rejection of the kingship of the LORD, while in 2 Samuel 7 the promise to King David is that his descendents would sit on the throne of Zion forever. The statement here may be understood both as in line with the many statements praising the kingship or reign of the LORD and as a reassertion that regardless of earthly power structures, it is the LORD rather than a human who truly reigns.
The voice of the sentinels
The sentinels proclaim that the LORD has returned to Zion (vs. 8). Does this mean that God was missing? Like the news that God reigns, this phrase requires some consideration of the worldview of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the temple — the visible sign of God’s presence — was also destroyed. What kind of God allows the divine house to be destroyed? One who no longer intends to live in it. Thus, the general world view would have been that the LORD had abandoned Zion or had been defeated by another god. Whether these statements accurately describe the presence of the LORD or not does not much matter for this particular passage. What this poem proclaims — what these sentinels proclaim — is that it is again visibly clear that the LORD dwells in Zion. The restoration proclaimed can be nothing other than the work of God present in Zion.
The voice of Jerusalem
Finally, Jerusalem is encouraged to add her voice to the cacophony of praise. More specifically it is the ruins or wastelands of Jerusalem who is told to break forth into singing (vs. 9). The city Jerusalem, also called Zion, is personified as a woman in a number of places in the Old Testament. Her embodiment accomplishes several things. It allows for closer empathy with the condition of the people and physical structures of Jerusalem, whether in a state of destruction or repair. It enables the whole of the people of Jerusalem to be understood as one — unified in emotion and speech. It also allows for a number of relational metaphors between the people of Jerusalem and the LORD. In the books of Jeremiah, the early part of Isaiah, and Ezekiel, Jerusalem is portrayed as God’s wife — often unfaithful. In the book of Lamentations, she is portrayed as the daughter of the LORD who calls out to others to see her pain and boldly accuses God for what has befallen her. In this portion of Isaiah, she is called to praise in the face of hope. Still in ruins, she is given news of comfort and redemption. Still in ruins, she is called to sing praise of God who acts on her behalf. Still in ruins, she is called to bear witness of her salvation to the all nations, even to the ends of the earth.
Commentary on Psalm 98
Like many psalms of praise, Psalm 98 begins with an imperative “call to praise” followed by a “reason to praise” introduced by the Hebrew word ki, “for.”
Here is my translation of 98:1-3:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for (ki) he has done wonders!
By his right hand and his holy arm
has he achieved deliverance!
The Lord has made his deliverance known,
he has revealed his righteousness before the eyes of the nations!
He has remembered loving fidelity and faithfulness to the house of Israel,
all the ends of the earth have seen the deliverance of our God!
The “wonders” and “deliverance” that Psalm 98 originally celebrated may have been a specific military victory or miracle. Or, much like our Easter or Pentecost hymns, the psalm may have been composed for an annual celebration of one of the Lord’s historic “wonders” — such as the Exodus, the rescue of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 BCE, or the return from Exile in the 6th century.
Whatever the original purpose or ancient Israelite use of the psalm may have been, the Revised Common Lectionary that many Christian Churches follow has elected to use this psalm on Christmas Day. The psalm is fitting for Christmas Day because it celebrates the long history of God’s saving actions and wonders. It is also fitting because it calls for “joy noise,” “joyous song,” and “praises” to be sung to the Lord. More on that momentarily. But first, a word about the “new song” for which the psalm calls.
A “New Song”
The psalm’s opening imperative calls for a “new song” (shir chadesh) to be sung. This “new song” for which the psalm calls is generally understood by psalms scholars to refer to a special genre of songs — the “new song” that is to be sung after a particular experience of God’s gracious deliverance. To put it another way, the “new song” does not merely mean to compose a new psalm composition. The new song means to write and sing a song that has to be “new” because God has just done something new — such as a new act of deliverance, a new act of grace, a new act of forgiveness, or a new act of blessing.
There are several places in the psalms that sing of the “new song.” But the newness of this type of song can be seen especially in two places.
First, the “new song” can be seen in Isa 42:10-13 [14-43:7? — it is not exactly clear where the song ends]. In this song, the anonymous prophet of the exile sings a “new song” announcing and giving thanks because the Lord was moving to restore the Judean exiles to their home: The Lord was moving “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, from prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7).
A second place where the newness of the new song can be seen is at the start of Psalm 40, which is a song of thanksgiving that a person sang after having experienced personal deliverance from the Lord. Here is my translation:
I waited and waited for the Lord,
he inclined and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit,
out of the miry swamp.
He set my feet upon a rock,
he established my steps.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
The “new song” here is the song of thanksgiving that the psalmist came to sing after the Lord had lifted the singer “out of the desolate pit” — a metaphor for extreme danger.
In light what the “new song” was in the Old Testament, it is appropriate for Christians to sing the old, old songs of Christmas every year, because in Jesus Christ, the new covenant, new testament, new creation, and new life of God has drawn near. As Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).
We Sing the Faith
Therefore, the people of God don’t just tell the faith, they sing it. From Jubal in Genesis 4, to Moses and Miriam, through Zechariah, Mary, the angels at Christ’s birth, and later from Martin Luther to Charles Wesley and finally right down to us — the people of God sing the faith.
I would go so far as to say that the Christian faith must be sung. This is the case because by singing, we can at one and the same time both respond to God’s active work in this world and also challenge the anti-God powers and regimes that seeks to wrench this world from God’s will.
When thinking about biblical songs, I especially am drawn to Eugene Peterson’s illuminating paraphrase of the start of the Magnificat: “I’m bursting with God-news, I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”1
“I’m bursting with God-news!” The people of faith must sing because we are “bursting with God-news.” Mary sang because she was bursting with God-news. In response to what the angel and her cousin Elizabeth had told her, but also in challenge to the powers of the world — the powers of sin, death, and the devil that cling to us so closely, that crowd into grand jury courtrooms so that justice itself is strangled in the womb and after long labor pangs, injustice is born in its place.
Throughout the church year, the words and tunes change. But the God-news that the people sing stays the same. The God-news of Advent, the God-news of Christmas, the God-news of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost demands that we sing. We sing because we are bursting with the God-news that in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling himself to the world, overcoming sin and all the powers of death. And we sing in resistance to the death and injustice of the world.
As one translation of the final stanza of Martin Luther’s “new song” “A Mighty Fortress” has it:
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day!
The kingdom’s ours forever!2
1 Eugene H. Peterson, Luke 1:46-47, “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,” (NavPress, 2002).
2 “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Text translation © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress.
Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]
Christmas is the Festival of the Incarnation.
It celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus. The second lesson for today reminds us, however — as does the Gospel text — that the nativity is set within a larger story of mind-boggling scope. The church traditionally has thought of the larger Christ narrative in terms of three movements — Preexistence (with the Father), descent (Incarnation), and ascent (Exaltation). All three movements are invoked in this magisterial text in ways that resonate with other New Testament Christological hymns (e.g., Philippians 2:5-11). When the Incarnation is in view in this lesson, the priestly work of Christ’s offering of the “purification for sins” (Hebrews 1:3b) is in focus in a way unique to the theology of Hebrews. The birth of Jesus suggests the death of Jesus. Incarnation finds its end in Atonement mediated by one like the mysterious Melchizedek.
The text breaks down into two distinct parts. Hebrews 1:1-4 (a single sentence in Greek) has the structural center in the independent clause: “God has spoken to us in a Son.” Verse 4 introduces the theme of the next section of text (the Son’s superiority to angels) that naturally extends a couple of verses beyond the RCL selection. If the preacher engages the second portion of the pericope, it is best to read through to v. 14: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” The purpose of “angels” (i.e., God’s intermediaries/messengers) is to serve God’s intent and very being. From Hebrews’ perspective, which is that of the New Testament in general, angels are enfolded into the reality of Christ. They serve Jesus (Matthew 4:11). They are among the “principalities and powers” over whom the cross of Christ is triumphant (Romans 8:38; Ephesians 3:10-11; 6:12; Colossians 1:16). They will come with the Son of Man at the end of time when Christ appears in glory (Mark 8:38).
Hebrews 1:1-4 is elegantly written in high Greek style, making much of alliteration, balanced phrasing, chiasm, etc. Not much of this comes over into English translations. In terms of content, this exordium introduces themes that will be explored in various ways in the rest of Hebrews. Verse 1 indicates Hebrews’ understanding that the Christ event is continuous with the revelation of God accessible through the theological narrative of Jewish scripture in Greek translation (the Septuagint or LXX). The composition of the community to whom the author writes is elusive, but it no doubt includes Gentiles. The claim of verse one is, then, that these Gentiles, through baptism, have been incorporated into the people of God and can legitimately claim Israelite ancestry as their own (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1). Though there is strong continuity with the revelation of what Christians call the Old Testament, God has done something new in Christ. What was spoken “in many and various ways” has now been expressed — singularly — through the Incarnation. Christ is, then, the fulfillment, the completion of all that God’s speech has revealed previously. In fact, the Incarnation is the fulcrum upon which all history turns. It marks the beginning of the eschaton (“in these lasts days”; Hebrews 1:2). In the birth of the Son (the name “Jesus” appears first in Hebrews 2:9), the infinite power of God both to create from nothing and the ability to sustain all things is enfolded. Here rests one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. Lutherans came to express the paradox by stating that “finite” human Jesus contains the “infinite” being of God (finitum capax infiniti). However one comes to express this mystery, according to Hebrews, Jesus is — unaccountably — both a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses … one who in every respect has been tested as we are” (4:15), yet is also “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).
Verse 3 (“he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”) introduces, implicitly, Psalm 110:1, an important text to Hebrews. In its original life-situation, the psalm describes the enthronement ritual of the King of Israel. In its application to the exalted Christ, it describes Jesus’ co-enthronement with God; Jesus is given the “name” (v. 4) — kyrios (“Lord”) — that is “more excellent” than that of even the angels. It is the name the LXX gives to God (see Psalm 110:1; 109:1 LXX; cf. Philippians 2:9).
Hebrews is unique among New Testament documents, however, in that it also sees theological significance in Psalm 110:4, “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” This text and its exposition is explicitly engaged later in Hebrews (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17). It provides the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek who foreshadows Jesus work as the priest who offers sacrifice once, for the sins of all (7:27).
The second reading for today from Hebrews is well paired with the Gospel lesson (John 1:1-14). They introduce overlapping themes that can be explored by the imaginative preacher in a variety of ways. There is, for example, the light/darkness contrast of John 1:4b-5 that complements the “radiance/reflection” language of Hebrews 1:2. A similar overlap can be seen in Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus in terms of “glory” (v. 2) and that of John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”). These visions of the Son born to Mary in terms of light, radiance/reflection (apaugasma can mean either), and glory are stunningly apt this time of the year. The darkness that is so overpowering in the Northern Hemisphere is won over by the light of Christ. In terms of the natural rhythms of the sun, the winter solstice is now behind us (December 21). The days will only get longer, nights shorter. Christmas heralds the return of light both to the world (sun) and to the church (Son). The quiet and measured advance of light marked in some parishes by Advent candles, now shines forth clearly and brightly from these texts, literally spoken by God (see introductory formulas of Hebrews 1:5-8) to us. That is something to lift up and celebrate in these dark days of early winter!
When I served a two-point rural parish, we held the Christmas Eve service in one church and Christmas Day in the other.
I loved the change in tenor as we moved from the hoopla and mystery of the Eve with emotions running high in the darkness of night to a more normal-feeling worship in late morning Christmas Day. It seemed as if we had concluded a long and brilliant novel that came to a climax on the Eve and returned to earth again (the denouement in literary terms) on Christmas Day. Everyone was more subdued. The pressure was off. Christmas Day was a big sigh.
And yet, the Gospel reading for the Nativity of Our Lord III, Christmas Day, contains all of the most difficult theological assertions Christians ever hear. John 1:1-14 asks us to believe in the unbelievable notion that God became human. More than that, it says that Jesus existed before time began, before anything was anywhere. Jesus was “in the beginning … ” and we don’t know when that was or where or how time began except for the faith that God created with breath and love.
This short passage assures the unity of all things, but it also introduces the idea that disunity exists in the midst of unity. Unity and disunity are, so to speak, hand-in-glove — paradoxes locked together.
We sing this paradox in hymns like “Holy God, Holy and Glorious” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #637). Here are verses 4 and 5 which sing of wisdom as folly and living by dying:
Holy God, holy and only wise,
wisdom of great price,
you choose the way of folly:
God the crucified,
and we behold your wisdom.
Holy God, holy and living one,
life that never ends,
you show your love by dying,
dying for your friends,
and we behold you living.
Paradox names the conundrum of the incarnation. The risen one is the crux of the trinity by the birth of the divine as flesh and blood.
A translation from The Inclusive Bible1 emphasizes the conjunction of the one who was born of Mary and the Word: “The Word was present to God from the beginning.” (John 1:2) “Through the Word all things came into being … ” (John 1:3) “Though the Word came to its own realm, the Word’s own people didn’t accept it.” (John 1:6) Instead of referring to the Word as the man Jesus, using the male pronoun (in both NRSV and Inclusive translations, “Word” is from the Greek logos), this language engages our imaginations with the expansive “truly divine” side of Jesus’ identity.
The incarnation is the stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) because it is inconceivable that the infinite can be contained by the finite. How can stars fit in a quart jar? Dear Martin Luther helps us to see the inhabitation John’s prologue announces:
God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attended clearly and mightily in Holy Writ … For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, over a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? … His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself; yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it.2
In the Isaiah reading and in Hebrews, this huge dichotomy — God-beyond and God-within — is stressed. Both truths are key assertions at Christmas because, as we celebrate one part of the majesty of Christ on this day — the birth — we cannot fathom its importance without its inconceivable enormity.
The primary message of these texts on this day when much of the world is glowing (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) is the incredible end to dualism. God has inhabited our Earth, our flesh. We have cause to look around us with awe. We have reason to be flattened with admiration for the creator when we simply stand in the rain or bite into a carrot or hold someone’s hand. It is all miracle — not only that we are here to behold this marvel but that God’s own presence attends our every breath.
How might we, then, treat each other differently? How might we comprehend the value of trees and minerals and water? What laws might we impose on ourselves to do honor to our awe of Earth and the universe? What limits might we want to make on our human greed in gratitude for God’s unthinkable self-giving?
1 Priests for Equality, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007).
2 Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ..,” in LW, vol. 57 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 57f.